Over 10 months ago on an ordinary afternoon in Tukwila, Washington, Vancouver Whitecaps FC U-18 Residency kicked off their quest for a United States Soccer Development Academy (USSDA) championship.
As the lone Canadian club competing in America’s top youth academy system for the first time, bringing home top honours seemed an improbable task at the time.
After a grueling 32-match season, the U-18 ‘Caps now stand just one win away from capturing their first USSDA league title in program history.
“It would be a fairytale end,” Whitecaps FC Residency head coach Craig Dalrymple told whitecapsfc.com. “They’ve been fantastic this week and it’s just been a culmination of all the good things they’ve done this year. They’ve come together as a group and continued to set high standards for themselves. You can see the growth in them on and off the field. That’s the most pleasing thing. Whatever we get out of tomorrow’s game is really gravy at the end of the season.”
The USSDA U-17/18 champion will be crowned this Sunday when Vancouver meets FC Dallas at BBVA Compass Stadium – home of Major League Soccer’s Houston Dynamo.
In their lone meeting this season, the two Major League Soccer-affiliated squads played to a 2-2 draw on December 2, 2011 at the USSDA Winter Showcase in Lakewood Ranch, Florida.
With goals from first-team midfielder Bryce Alderson and striker Caleb Clarke, the ‘Caps took a two-goal lead before a brace from FC Dallas star midfielder Daniel Garcia evened the game.
“They’re probably the best footballing side we’ve seen this year,” Dalrymple said. “They try to out-possess teams and they’re very creative so they’ll test us and they’ll test our defensive resolve. But they’ve also got that fight and grit about them. They’re a competitive bunch. They lost in the final last year so certainly they’re here for revenge.”
To get to this point, the ‘Caps finished atop their group in the USSDA round of 32 last month in Frisco, Texas, posting a 2W-1L-0D record and advancing on goal differential. Midfielder Ben McKendry was the star of the first round for the Blue and White, scoring in each of the team’s three fixtures.
By finishing atop their group, the ‘Caps were one of eight teams to advance to Academy Finals Week this week in Houston, Texas. And this time around, it has been striker Ben Fisk who has stolen the show.
The 19-year-old Vancouver native netted a hat-trick in both of Vancouver’s first two matches — a 4-1 win over North Carolina Fusion and 4-2 win over Northwest Division rival De Anza Force — before the ‘Caps sealed their berth to the championship final on Friday, July 20, by earning a point in a 1-1 draw with Colorado Rapids Academy.
Fellow strikers Yassin Essa and the aforementioned Clarke, who led the team with 24 regular season goals, have also caused headaches for opposing defenders throughout the tournament.
Since losing their playoff opener on June 25 in Frisco, the young ‘Caps are undefeated in five matches, having outscored their opponents by a 15-4 margin in the process.
All season, the West Conference, Northwest Division champions have lost just six matches outright, and they’ll look to keep that stat intact on Sunday.
After suffering a heartbreaking 2-1 defeat to Pateadores in last season’s USSDA championship final, FC Dallas enter Sunday’s matchup with one thing on their mind: a national championship.
“It would just make the dream come true for this team," captain Mikey Ambrose told fcdallas.com. "We've been working so hard for the last three years. Everything would be perfected if we won that national championship.”
This is the third straight year Dallas has qualified for Academy Finals Week, but they have never won the elusive league title.
In addition to Garcia, who led the team with 18 goals during the regular season, the ‘Caps will look to contain first-team striker Jonathan Top.
The Homegrown striker, who has recorded one assist in two MLS appearances this season, scored two goals in Dallas’ come-from-behind 3-2 victory over rival Solar Chelsea SC on Friday to clinch their berth in Sunday’s final.
Garcia and Top both turned down U.S. U-20 national team call-ups to the prestigious Milk Cup in Ireland this month so they could be with the U-18 squad in Houston.
The Central Conference, Texas Division champions, who have lost just four matches this season, registered three consecutive shutouts in the USSDA round of 32 last month, and posted the lowest goals against average among all U-18 teams during the regular season. They are unbeaten in eight matches dating back to May 19.
Kickoff is set for 6 p.m. PT at BBVA Compass Stadium in Houston, Texas. Tune into whitecapsfc.com to access a live stream of the match and for full post-game coverage.